As more consumers become acquainted with oysters, more restaurants are taking advantage of the trend. Oysters are becoming more ubiquitous than ever, and it shows no signs of stopping. These days, they’re no longer making a comeback. Instead, they’re taking center stage. So what’s next for the oyster in 2016?
The growing petite oyster market
Over the last three years, the demand for oysters has accelerated noticeably. This trend can be attributed to a number of reasons, but a main one is the popular use of oysters during Happy Hour. More restaurants are employing this tactic to draw customers in or drive alcohol sales. These “Dollar Oyster” deals can now be found at the local pub or even the neighborhood pizza joint.
In the past, Dollar Oyster selections were typically commodity oysters like Blue Points, Chesapeakes, or Malpeques. The cost of these oysters allow the dollar deal to be worthwhile. However, as diners become more oyster-saavy, restaurants are looking to make Happy Hour selections more exciting, thus creating a market for petite oysters.
Petite sizes cost less than their Select counterparts, so with this lower cost option, restaurants can offer premium varieties like a Cape Cod oyster during Dollar Oyster happy hours. Aside from happy hour use, this option has also created an opportunity for restaurants that are more cost-sensitive to have quality oysters on their menu. There seems to be a growing preference for smaller oysters too, which could be driven by newer oyster eaters uncomfortable with larger meats.
Growers have definitely taken advantage of the petite market because it allows them to sell their oysters sooner, sometimes too soon. Depending on the farm, this could mean less Select sized product or running out of oysters before their fall peak when quality is best. It is illegal to serve petite East Coast oysters in certain states like Massachusetts, so please check your local regulations. The petite oyster market is here to stay, and we will probably see more customers shift to this lower cost option with rising freight costs and more pervasive dollar oyster deals.
The spread of oyster aquaculture to the South
With wild oysters on the decline, southern regions have looked to oyster aquaculture as an option to bring oysters back. In the Chesapeake Bay, oyster aquaculture thrived in Virginia because it was fairly straightforward to obtain a private lease. So, when Virginia’s oysters were depleted, watermen were able and open to adopting aquaculture. In Maryland, however, it was not until the last few years when leasing was finally streamlined. Since then, “[Maryland] has issued 111 oyster farming leases across 2,240 acres of waters.” This rapid growth of oyster farms has caused conflict with Maryland’s watermen, who argue farms limit the areas they can access, and with residents of waterfront homes, who find the oyster cages to be unappealing.
In the Gulf, the first oyster farm was started in 2009. Point aux Pins Oysters of Grand Bay, Alabama is now the largest Gulf off-bottom oyster operation. More watermen are now exploring aquaculture and trying to figure out how to distribute their oysters to the half-shell market, a market opposite of Gulf oyster culture where oysters are seen as commodities. The first major Gulf oyster hatchery also opened this year, which will provide more opportunities to explore aquaculture in the region.
We will most likely begin to see more half-shell friendly oysters from the southern states. Regions with wild fisheries will transition more to oyster aquaculture despite conflicts that will need to be resolved by state regulators. Demand for southern oysters in the Northeast will remain very limited, but the south may see a shift in the commodity oyster culture in the near future.
New oysters and brands will continue to come on to the market. Marketing will be key for farms to carve out a niche position in a saturated space, and to attract loyal consumers and chefs.
East Coast supply potentially very limited in winter and spring
In 2015, we saw one of the worst winters in New England. Unfortunately, this caught a number of farms off guard. Some oyster growers had to endure significant losses while others had to deal with winter kill in the spring. These lost oysters would have been sold as markets in the fall that usually create a fall glut. There doesn't seem to be as much around as usual this time of year, which could be a sign that growers have lower inventories.
With less to sell, growers will run out faster earlier in the year. This scarcity will become noticeable in the spring and summer when demand is outpacing supply and growers are either sold out or waiting on their seed to reach market size. Any seed lost this past winter will also affect the amount of supply in fall 2016. East Coast supply outside of New England will depend on the weather. If bad winter weather immobilizes areas like the Canadian Maritime or the Chesapeake, we will see a significant shortage again this coming winter.
More potential West Coast closures and stricter regulations
Warm water temperatures caused many area closures on the West Coast this past summer, which limited Pacific oyster supply. If areas were not closed, oysters showed signs of spawn and quality was not ideal. In British Columbia, illegal sales of shellfish caused a high reported number of shellfish illnesses. New England had a fairly quiet summer season aside from the closures in Katama and Duxbury.
If the global warming trend continues, water temperatures will also continue to rise causing more area closures and triggering oysters to spawn earlier. West Coast supply will be limited again during the summer. Proposed protocols and regulations to test oysters might be implemented in regions like British Columbia, but the process could be cumbersome, potentially limiting product coming out of those areas. In Katama and Duxbury, new vibrio regulations are being discussed like a one-hour harvest window. Again, these rules will make it harder for growers to harvest and supply the growing demand during the busy summer months.
And that's a wrap on 2015! We hope Mother Nature is kind to us next year, but we'll just have to wait and see. Aside from all the oyster and shellfish talk, though, there's one important thing we have to acknowledge: our growing and amazing community.
Thank you for an awesome year. We wouldn't be able to do what we do without your support! Enjoy the holidays and we hope you get to ring in the new year with some oysters!